The American Dilemma and How We Can Fix It

THE GREATEST TRAGEDY

In the 1920’s in Chicago “the mob” invented a game called “policy”. The game was very simple. 

A player selected three numbers and placed a bet. If those three numbers exactly matched the last three digits of the closing volume traded on The New York Stock Exchange that day, the bettor would get a return of 800 times his investment. Of course, the odds of winning were 1000 to 1 so there was a 20% house “edge”. (By way of comparison, casino games such as Blackjack and Craps have only about a 5% house edge and are still vastly profitable).

 Well, of course, “policy” was an exceptionally lucrative scheme for the mob. It was also illegal. The civil authorities arrested, tried and convicted these mobsters and sent them to jail for racketeering. “Policy” faded from the American landscape. 

But then it had a revival. 

The game was trans-morphed into something that was called “The Daily Game”. In Illinois it was re-born in 1974. Not only was it state-sanctioned (therefore legal) but it was even more profitable than the game the mob had invented.  

Once again the bettor selected three numbers. A daily drawing was held using floating ping pong balls and the successful bettor received 500 times his bet as the payoff. (This, of course, meant that the State of Illinois held a 50% house edge).

 The mob had been 60% more generous in their payoffs than the State of Illinois – and they had been sent to jail for racketeering!

 Anyone with even a minimal amount of math background realizes that playing a game with a 50% house edge can only be a profitable venture for the house. Ultimately, the bettor will be deprived of his or her bankroll, and with that kind of house edge, that happens rather quickly. So who would voluntarily participate in such a game?

 The answer, not surprisingly, is those who are least educated and those at the very lowest end of the economic spectrum. (Generally, those two groups are congruous). In Chicago, that describes a significant segment of the African-American community. Numerous studies have shown that African-Americans are indeed the heaviest players of the game.

 Apparently, the State of Illinois figured this out and engaged in a systematic plan to increase and exploit African-American participation. Along the Dan Ryan and the Eisenhower Expressways, as they ran through areas that were heavily dominated with African-American populations, billboards began to appear. African-American pro athletes were featured in these ads with captions like, “My favorite numbers are 275. What are yours?”

 Is there any question what the purpose of these ads were and to whom they were directed?

 I had some friends who were immigrants from Pakistan. They owned a little neighborhood convenience store. These were hard-working people. I enjoyed listening to them speak about how grateful they were to have come to America – how much better their lives were than in their homeland.

 I would go to their store to pick up a few items and my friends and I would chat before I went home. They had a lottery terminal in the store and received a commission from the Lottery Board for the tickets they sold. 

One evening an African-American woman in her early 20’s came in with her four or five year old daughter. As I stood at the counter, this woman handed one of my friends a worn piece of paper – her daily game selections. He started punching the numbers into the lottery terminal … and kept punching … and kept punching.  

He finally entered all the numbers on the sheet and told the woman her total. It was $57.00. I was stunned. 

During this process, I heard the little girl ask her mother, “Mommy can I have an apple?” 

Her mother responded, “We don’t have money for that.” 

After she and her child left, I asked my friend if he had ever seen this woman before. He said, “Yes, she comes in at least twice a week with that list.” 

My Pakistani friends were truly caring people. Although the lottery machine was profitable to them, both for the commissions they received and because it promoted store traffic, they ultimately had it removed. They felt they were contributing to the further impoverishment of those who were already the poorest members of our community. They couldn’t justify the economic benefits with their ethical and religious principles.

 President Barack Obama reportedly received 98% of the vote cast by the African-American community in the 2008 election. Obviously, his voting base saw him as a champion, someone who would be sensitive to their plight and work to improve it.

 But the truth is that the President has never spoken out about this first-class, government-sanctioned rip-off which adversely impacts the lives of so many African-Americans. 

Not as a “community activist”. Not as an Illinois State Senator. Not as a U. S. Senator. Not as President of the United States.

 And that is the greatest tragedy of all.

 

 

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